Musical Instruments

Fifes and flageolets

The preceding post discusses a tune found in the third volume of “Aird’s Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and foreign airs; Adapted for the Fife, Violin, or German Flute.” This is a six-volume series produced during the final two decades of the 18th century. The title page of the first volume illustrates a fife in a military context and the following volumes are dedicated to the British and Irish armed forces.

The collection does not include a noteworthy amount of military music and there is no obvious musical intention behind the dedication. This raises a question about whether the fife was highlighted at the start of the list of instruments simply as part of the homage, or if it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. A hand drawing on the back of the illustrated page sheds light on this and will be examined more closely below.

A fife is seen in a similar setting in this post’s banner image, taken from a French textbook on dance by Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesographie, published in 1596. His list of instruments used for military march and dance includes a “fifre” and an “arigot,” seen at the right and left sides of the illustration, respectively. In a subsequent discussion of recreational dance, he defines the fifre — fife — as “a small transverse flute with six holes, which the Germans and Swiss use, and since it has a very narrow bore the size of a pistol ball, it produces a sharp sound.”

Arbeau’s arigot is an end-blown duct flute — flageolet (“flajol”) — that “due to its small size has more or fewer holes; the best made have four holes in front and two behind.” This arrangement permits a closer placement of the fingers than does the one with all six holes on the same side. Arbeau otherwise regards the fife and flageolet as equivalent and notes that musicians accompanying recreational dance who find the sound of the fife too strident use the flageolet instead. (It may be more than a passing coincidence that the terms arigot and flageolet are echoed by the designations for the similarly diminutive haricot and flageolet beans.)

Marin Mersenne describes both the fifre and the flajolet in his monumental Harmonie Universelle, from 1636. He also clarifies the association of cylindrical transverse flutes with Germany. His discussion of the Fleute d’Allemande explicitly states that it had a cylindrical bore. The segment pierced by the toneholes was redesigned with a conical bore by French makers between 1660 and 1680, without giving the instrument a new name. The latter design is the one labeled a German Flute in Aird’s collection and numerous others like it.

A flageolet with two thumbholes on the back of the instrument and four fingerholes on the front was subsequently called a “French flageolet.” In 1680, the prominent London music publisher John Playford released an instruction book for it written by Thomas Greeting. (This was not the first work of its kind in English but is the oldest one known to have survived intact. Playford is reported to have published a similarly titled edition in 1661.)

Pleasant Companion:

It illustrates the instrument in two sizes.

A fingering chart, presumably for the larger of them, juxtaposes staff notation with the tablature used for the tunes in the book.

Greeting followed an earlier precedent for notating music for the flageolet with such tablature, seen here in the first tune in his book.

This indicates the thumbholes on the first (uppermost) and fifth lines, with the four fingerholes on the other lines. The same tablature is therefore applicable to an instrument with all six holes on the front. The range of the staff notation in the fingering chart (which changes clef at the middle G) correlates with that of an alto recorder. However, the low F shown in the chart would require a seventh hole, of which there is otherwise no indication. The inverted semicircle beneath the F indicates a partial covering of the instrument’s lower end, notwithstanding its terminal flare, and in keeping with earlier representations of flageolet fingering.

Playford uses the terms flageolet, flute, and recorder in the preface to Apollo’s Banquet: Containing Instructions, and Variety of New Tunes, Ayres, Jiggs, and several New Scotch Tunes for the TREBLE-VIOLIN. This was published in several editions beginning in 1669. The one appearing most closely after the edition of The Pleasant Companion cited here was the fifth, from 1687.

… this Choice Banquet, replenished with variety of new and delightful Tunes proper to this Instrument [the violin], and also the Flute or Recorder…

I have in this Edition left out some of the old Tunes, but in their place added four times as many new ones, with divers new Scotch Tunes: All which tunes may properly be played also on the flagelet, by such as are skill’d in the knowledge of pricking Tunes by Notes.

It is safe to assume that Playford used “flute or recorder” as alternate designations for the latter instrument, in keeping with then current usage. He expected its players to read staff notation but regarded flageolet players as more likely to be conversant with tablature. A hint about fife players also using that format is found on the back of Aird’s title page as noted at the outset of this post. It shows two hand-drawn fingering charts.

One is scratched out entirely and the other is flawed in the second octave. This suggests that they were made by a person unfamiliar with doing so; an exercise someone comfortable reading staff notation for their instrument is unlikely to have undertaken at all. The illustrated fingerings are those of a fife but may also have been intended for a flageolet. The range is commensurate with the included tunes and does not reflect either instrument’s full range.

Henry Playford (John’s son) focused on Scottish material in a publication from 1700:

Original Scotch-Tunes,
(Full of the Highland Humours) for the
Being the First of its Kind yet Printed:
Most of them being of the compass of the FLUTE.

It contains 39 tunes, of which all but one are suited to the soprano recorder. (The tenor an octave lower was not an ordinary size at the time.) Heavy use is made of the low C that was not yet available on the German flute, thus precluding it from being the flute referred to on the title page. The first tune is typical of the entire collection.

If the link to the pitch of the violin is disregarded, the tunes become playable as easily on recorders of other sizes. The notation is read on all as if they were in C but the produced sound is transposed to the actual key of the selected instrument. The normalization to C was also recommended in The English and French Flageolet Preceptor sold, if not written by, William Bainbridge who played a central role in the development of the former. He began this toward the end of the 18th century by combining elements of the alto recorder with the French flageolet.

The publication is undated but includes fingering charts that do not reflect any of Bainbridge’s 19th-century innovations and presumably appeared before he made them. There is a corresponding untransposed chart for this flageolet in its “key scale” of F. (The small flat mouthpiece extends into a “windcap” intended to prevent condensation from entering the duct that it encloses, and was devised for small French flageolets earlier in the 18th century.)

The English instrument developed during the early-19th century through a series of small modifications that simplified its initial recorder-based design and playing technique. Bainbridge shifted his focus from emulating the recorder to the attributes of the German flute. The “Improvements on the flageolet…” that he patented in 1803, are for an “octave” instrument, relative to the flute, and therefore comparable to a fife in size and range.

He successively added keys to it, as did other makers, who ultimately dispensed with the thumbhole and seventh fingerhole. The basic fingering of the six-holed designs matched that of the fife, as typified in The compleat tutor for the fife, published in London in 1765. (Mersenne provided a virtually identical chart for the German flute and a differently formatted more complex one for the fife, indicating that the headings were mistakenly exchanged.)

The fife was also fitted with keys during the 19th century, effectively leading to a piccolo transverse flute (in parallel derivation directly from the German flute). A “piccolo-flageolet” was marketed that included a keyed body with both an end-blown and a side blown mouthpiece, seen here in an 1897 Sears-Roebuck catalog.

Inexpensive six-holed flageolets made of metal began to appear a few decades into the 19th century. However, the label most widely applied to them — penny whistle — is attested significantly earlier. I’ll take a closer look at their emergence and the associated nomenclature in the next post. To wrap up this installment, here are demonstrations of the suitability of the fife and English flageolet for the traditional repertoire adapted by Aird (albeit with tunes from later collections). Note that the flageolet is assembled from a combination set.

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